Michael Russo’s Sunday Insider: Never terrible enough

  • Article by: MICHAEL RUSSO , Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2011 - 7:24 AM

The Wild will miss the playoffs (again) but will not lose enough to stumble into a draft pick like top rookie Jeff Skinner.

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Rookie Jeff Skinner has taken Carolina by storm, leaving Wild fans to wonder, “What if?”

Photo: Chris Seward, Mct - Mct

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It's all Wade Dubielewicz's fault. And Cody Almond's and Casey Wellman's, too.

If the Wild had earned four fewer points in the standings last season, it would have picked seventh overall and had a crack at drafting a player it undoubtedly wanted, Kitchener star Jeff Skinner.

Instead, the "Justin Bieber of hockey" has taken Raleigh, N.C., by storm, and at 18, was the youngest player in All-Star Game history, is the favorite to win the Calder Trophy as the NHL's Rookie of the Year and has been invited to prom by every teenage girl in the Triangle.

So where did it go wrong for the Wild? The final four games of last season when the Wild ground out four worthless points.

April 4: The Wild trailed 3-1 in Vancouver with a minute left. Perfect. Then Almond scored his first NHL goal, followed by an Antti Miettinen goal 23 seconds later, two goals in the final 42 seconds to steal a point. Oy.

April 8: Third period in Calgary, Niklas Backstrom was knocked from the game after taking a shot to the neck. In came Dubielewicz, awful in his previous call-ups. Perfect. Then Dubielewicz stoned Calgary to steal a shootout victory. Oy vey.

April 10: Season finale vs. Dallas. Mike Modano Night at the X. Time to give the former North Star a feel-good victory lap. Perfect. Before that, though, Wellman's first NHL goal in the third period helped the Wild get a point. Oy vey iz mir.

Four meaningless points, and the Wild loses "Skinner Fever."

Now, maybe Mikael Granlund, who was taken by the Wild at No. 9, turns out to be the real deal. He sure looks like a stud as the teenage No. 1 center for HIFK. There's a reason last year's SM-Liiga's Rookie of the Year is on murals throughout Helsinki.

But the point is this: If you're going to miss the playoffs year after year, is it possible to make it count just once?

The Wild beat St. Louis and Edmonton in consecutive games last week. Wonderful. Now the Wild gets to pick 11th in the draft.

Yet, one week from now, when the Wild closes the season against Dallas, it's going to have the same empty feeling as Edmonton and Colorado.

But at least the Oilers and Avalanches are guaranteed a top-three pick for their trouble.

This wouldn't be such a big deal if it didn't happen every single year to the Wild. The Wild has become the franchise of midrange (and failed) first-round picks.

If you're never going to get lottery picks, you must draft well as a whole. Perhaps things began to turn by getting four picks in the top 59 of the 2010 draft class.

Granlund and Johan Larsson have big upsides in terms of skill and smarts. Brett Bulmer is the biggest projection but might have the highest ceiling. And speedy Jason Zucker looks as if he has a nose for the net.

The Wild also acquired youngster Mikko Lehtonen, 24, a 2005 third-round pick by the Bruins, who just led the Swedish Elite League with 30 goals. Plus, the Houston Aeros, behind perhaps future Wild pieces Wellman, Almond, Matt Hackett, Nate Prosser and Marco Scandella, have a chance to go on a long playoff run.

So things are looking brighter.

But wouldn't it be nice to get a lottery pick just once if the Wild is going to keep missing the playoffs?

Carolina went to the Cup Final in 2002, had one lousy year and got Eric Staal. Colorado had a lousy 2008-09 and got Matt Duchene. Pittsburgh and Chicago fans suffered for years, but here's betting every fan of those Stanley Cup-winning teams says it was worth it.

Nobody can ask a bunch of proud Wild players to take a dive for the good of a franchise, but when Wild fans wonder, "Why don't we have the Sidney Crosbys and Taylor Halls," late-season meaningless victories against St. Louis and Edmonton don't help.

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